Styrofoam cities and avatars: how the Gehry siblings would redesign education

By Liz Willen, The Hechinger Report

LOS ANGELES – A group of fifth graders assemble around an enormous cardboard-covered table, designing a city from recycled materials. There’s tremendous excitement in this Venice, California, classroom as they discuss ideas for creating an imaginary metropolis from scratch.

“We need transportation!” one student shouts.

“A train going all through the city,” another offers.

Later, armed with protractors, they stand on street corners and beaches, digging holes and surveying land parcels. They elect a mayor, contemplate traffic problems and look clearly enthralled as they learn by doing, guided by Doreen Gehry Nelson and her brother, the renowned architect Frank Gehry.

The classroom teacher is less pleased. “Not in keeping with normal procedure,” she says at one point in the recently restored 1972 documentary, “Kid City.” Within weeks, the Gehry siblings are sacked, their dismay on full display as they pack up and leave.

“All we are talking about is trying things and taking chances,” a disappointed Frank Gehry says to the teacher on camera, as his younger sister Doreen, who came up with city-building as part of her design-based learning method, looks on. “As far as I’m concerned, you kill any creativity.”

Undeterred, Doreen Gehry Nelson, now 86, went on to start her own nonprofit, win a slew of awards and share her city-building teaching methods with thousands of classroom teachers and other education professionals around the world, though not nearly as many as she would like. Frank Gehry, who turned 94 on Tuesday, designed some of the most famous buildings in the world, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall and The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The design-oriented superstar siblings, raised in Toronto before relocating to Los Angeles and becoming leaders in their fields, will appear on stage together in a keynote discussion at SXSW EDU in Austin that I’ll be moderating on March 7. They’ll be discussing Gehry Nelson’s book “Cultivating Curiosity: Teaching and Learning Reimagined,” a call for breaking away from formulaic teaching.